The Death of Basil Cuffy

An Ailing Immigrant Wasted Away as a Federal Detainee

But the federal Division of Immigration Health Services prefers that those detainees with serious chronic illnesses, such as HIV, be housed in the ICE's own detention centers. Several officials at Berks declined to discuss the particulars of Cuffy's case, and would not say whether anyone had recommended moving him to one of these jails.

Over the past six months, Cuffy was beginning to waste away. He'd gone into the jail's infirmary in February to be treated for a cyst on his arm and was kept there for about a month and a half in an isolated cell, according to Jen Esposito, a volunteer coordinator of a biweekly arts workshop at the jail in which Cuffy participated. Fellow detainee Randall Sackie, a Liberian who was granted asylum and released at the end of June after 19 months at Berks, also recalls Cuffy's stint in the medical unit. "He looked perfectly healthy for a long time," says Sackie, "but when he got out, he was real skinny." In a letter to Hoyte dated March 19, 2003, Cuffy complained, "I am losing weight and I eat every day. I don't miss a meal."

He went back to the medical unit in July, and Esposito, who visited him there on the 31st, recalls, "I had to bend down and speak to him through the food door of his cell. The cell was about six by 12 feet and his eyes were yellow. He told me he wasn't receiving any treatment. The food door was encrusted with food and there were flies all over it. A terrible smell came out of his cell—it was not well ventilated."

Lost in limbo: Cuffy died far from his New York City home.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Lost in limbo: Cuffy died far from his New York City home.

Esposito went on vacation, and when she returned on August 14 other detainees told her that Cuffy had been taken to the hospital. It took her five days of wangling before officials allowed her to visit him there. "He moaned and couldn't speak," she says. "He held my hand and sometimes seemed to be able to focus." Hours later he was dead.

It didn't necessarily have to turn out that way. Although, like as many as 90 percent of immigrant detainees, Cuffy lacked consistent legal representation, an immigration judge granted him relief this past January, ruling that he could stay in the U.S. and retain his green card—an indication, immigrant attorneys say, that the judge did not regard him as a flight risk or a danger to the community. But the government appealed the decision and was holding him in detention as the case went forward. The judge set an unusually low bond of $2,500. Hoyte, a home health aide coordinator in Brooklyn, says she had been "trying to get it together. It's a lot of money."

According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees appeals, briefs from both sides were received on March 24. But nearly five months later, no decision had been rendered, no action taken.

« Previous Page